Weighing in at a cool four hours, Amir Bar-Lev’s epic documentary Long Strange Trip records the artistic journey of an American band over decades of cultural change, but it also illuminates the personality of a kind of American hero only America could produce. The band itself, The Grateful Dead, were sloppy and spontaneous, or blissful and beatific, depending on which concert you attended. In any case, fans were not disappointed. But like Americans before him, helmsman Jerry Garcia was not prepared for the kind of adulatory fame his art would receive. The writer Jack Kerouac was a prototype of achieving huge fame and the destruction it wreaked. Known as the King of the Beats, Kerouac suffered his image. While the connection to the beat literary movement is made in the film, the poignant story of Garcia’s parallel journey to Kerouac’s speaks volumes about a culture and the heroes it creates and consumes.
Wresting Kerouac from the myths surrounding him has been a lifelong preoccupation. It is not easy to find the human in those chosen for idolatry. Kerouac was a writer first and foremost. In 1982, in Boulder at the 25thanniversary of the publication of his most famous book, On the Road, the Dead performed. In the heady haze that surrounded this event, I cannot tell you who attended the concert, but Ken Kesey came to Boulder with Further and some Pranksters, and Timothy Leary and Abbie Hoffman were there as well, sitting in on panels with Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Trungpa Rinpoche. As Burroughs liked to say, “A good time was had by all.”
The great achievement of this documentary, after all, a music history, is its window into the story of America; it is not merely a concert movie. At a celebration last weekend, while many film insiders were out west for the Golden Globes, filmmakers D. A. Pennebaker, who made the iconic Monterey Pop andBob Dylan: Don’t Look Back, and Ezra Edelman who directed O.J.: Made in America joined Martin Scorsese --he’s a Long Strange Trip executive producer—hosting the party with Jane Rosenthal. Here was a crowd that knows well the vicissitudes of American myth. Dead & Company is on its way west, to the Grammy’s.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central